No One at the Wheel

Driverless Cars and the Road of the Future


By Samuel I. Schwartz

With Karen Kelly

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The country’s leading transport expert describes how the driverless vehicle revolution will transform highways, cities, workplaces and laws not just here, but across the globe.

Our time at the wheel is done. Driving will become illegal, as human drivers will be demonstrably more dangerous than cars that pilot themselves. Is this an impossible future, or a revolution just around the corner?

Sam Schwartz, America’s most celebrated transportation guru, describes in this book the revolution in self-driving cars. The ramifications will be dramatic, and the transition will be far from seamless. It will overturn the job market for the one in seven Americans who work in the trucking industry. It will cause us to grapple with new ethical dilemmas-if a car will hit a person or a building, endangering the lives of its passengers, who will decide what it does? It will further erode our privacy, since the vehicle can relay our location at any moment. And, like every other computer-controlled device, it can be vulnerable to hacking.

Right now, every major car maker here and abroad is working on bringing autonomous vehicles to consumers. The fleets are getting ready to roll and nothing will ever be the same, and this book shows us what the future has in store.



You Can’t Put This Car in Reverse

I guess I shoulda known

By the way you parked your car sideways

That it wouldn’t last


IN THE SECOND DECADE AFTER HENRY FORD’S MODEL T FIRST rolled off the assembly line, inventors were working to eliminate the weakest link in the chain—the driver. Nearly a century later, that effort is finally coming to fruition. With it could come either better and safer lives or a lifestyle change for the worse. This book explores both futures, as well as the shades of gray between them, and offers a recipe for the best outcome.

At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, General Motors sponsored a “Futurama” exhibit called “Highways and Horizons.” Visitors rode for a third of a mile in audio-equipped chairs through the 35,738-square-foot scale model of an imagined world of 1960, complete with automated highways connecting gleaming cities, sprawling suburbs, vast rural areas, and modern, efficient industrial districts.

The demonstration’s architect, the industrial and theatrical designer Norman Bel Geddes, said of it in his book Magic Motorways: “Futurama is a large-scale model representing almost every type of terrain in America and illustrating how a motorway system may be laid down over the entire country—across mountains, over rivers and lakes, through cities and past towns—never deviating from a direct course and always adhering to the four basic principles of highway design: safety, comfort, speed and economy.”1 This vision must have seemed like a utopian dream to a population emerging from the Great Depression.

In 1960, I was twelve, and people were still driving conventional cars on non-automated highways and roads. On June 19 of that year, a short-lived amusement park billed as the world’s largest opened in the Bronx, two boroughs away from where I lived. My next-door neighbor, a New York City Buildings Department official, gave the Schwartz family two free passes, and my twenty-two-year-old brother Brian took me. Freedomland, spread across 205 acres, boasted eight miles of navigable waterways for river rides, an 8,500-car parking lot, and 37 attractions, including, among other enticements, reenactments of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Great Chicago Fire (gas jets ignited buildings every fifteen minutes and children ran to pump the fire hoses and douse the flames), and a western fort with daily shoot-outs.

One experience stood apart for me: a motor car traveling on a track that prevented riders from swaying and veering off the road—a form of today’s autopilot. The idea that you could travel without steering a wheel (although I did pretend to steer) seemed more magical and powerful to my twelve-year-old imagination than any of the historical re-creations at the park.

By 1964, driverless cars for the masses were still just an aspiration, but especially after I rode on one of a line of automatic skyway cars at the World’s Fair in the adjoining borough of Queens that year, the autonomous vehicle (or AV for short) became for me, as well as for many other people, an idea full of potential and promise.

My first car came the closest to being a self-propelled vehicle—at least in my mind. It was a used 1960 Chevy Impala I bought for $450 in 1966 from tip money I got delivering groceries by bike from my father’s grocery store in south Brooklyn. It had wings (called fins) like an airplane. Each year all my friends and I would eagerly anticipate the fin changes and enlargements; as they got bigger, the feeling you were flying while driving got stronger. You could even believe you were a little airborne when accelerating on the highway.

Today, finally, mass automated transportation is clearly within reach, and the AV revolution is well under way. In October 2016, an autonomous truck from Uber’s Otto division traveled 120 miles of Colorado highway hauling 200 cases of beer while a human driver relaxed in the sleeper berth.2 Tesla owners can download an autopilot feature that allows drivers on highways to change lanes hands-free by just flipping the turn signal. Autonomous parking is already available on many different makes of cars. Swedish carmaker Volvo has introduced self-driving vehicles on the streets of Gothenburg. There are many more examples of AVs taking on roadways all over the globe. All major vehicle makers along with many private and public research organizations are focused on automating transportation.

Just as the horse and buggy became a quaint tourist attraction, the driven car will likewise become a charming relic as driverless cars, buses, and trucks are adopted by the general population worldwide. In the cult 1990 film Total Recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger jumps into a driverless taxi, one of a fleet of AVs that transports passengers around a nameless city, safely navigating traffic and pedestrians. The sci-fi film is set in 2084, but most transportation experts say that by 2075 driven cars will have been completely replaced. Others say the days of driven cars will come to an end even sooner—by midcentury.

By 2025, hands-free driving may be as common as E-ZPass tags became in the early 1990s. By 2035, we may find that the majority of driving miles are completed by machines, not humans. It actually doesn’t matter when exactly the driven car will disappear—the lead-up to complete replacement will be a shock to our system, and we need to be prepared. Autonomous vehicles, or AVs, will be the most disruptive technology to hit society worldwide since the advent of the motorcar. Some futurists and policy experts even talk about human driving being banned on some or all roads.

No One at the Wheel is about the impact of AVs and the choices that people, society, and government will need to make before the disruptions they cause reverberate through our daily lives—the good, the bad, and the ugly. These issues will affect family and work life, business, politics, ethics, the environment, travel, health, and, yes, our happiness. Some estimates say that one out of seven jobs in the United States are linked to transportation.3 All over the world, people depend on drivers, from truckers and taxi operators to bus drivers and train conductors. Because everyone needs a way to get where they need to go and to acquire needed goods and services, no one’s life will be unchanged by AVs. I equate the coming disruption to a volcano that’s just spewing ash right now—when the lava starts to flow, we have to be ready for it.

Just about every city in the industrialized world was caught flat-footed by the invention and arrival of ride-on-demand services like Uber and other app-based companies, such as Lyft, Gett, and Via, and few cities are enthusiastic about them. In Paris, Toronto, and Brussels, as well as in the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, parts of Australia, Japan, Thailand, India, and dozens of other countries, Uber has been seriously curtailed or even partially or fully banned.4 In London, taxi drivers have revolted. New York City attempted a short-lived slow-growth moratorium that nevertheless could be tried again after studies showing that a surge in vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) by app-based cars has contributed to plummeting travel speeds.

It’s hard to fault cities for not having sufficient foresight about app-based transportation, since no one had an inkling, including me, that people would change their travel habits so quickly and dramatically. We also have never seen such a rapid change in transportation in our lifetimes. Uber was launched in 2010, and by 2017 it had, according to reports, become a $70 billion company with a commanding social and political presence because of its enviable, if dubious, clout and market share.

When AVs become the norm, the reverberations will make app-based rides on demand seem like a minor blip on the transportation landscape. The AV industry is on its way to becoming a multi-trillion-dollar business—bigger than Amazon and Walmart combined as they exist today—and with that size will come an unprecedented amount of lobbying power. Impressive economic predictions are floating around from a variety of experts and stakeholders about the global AV market and its benefits to businesses and consumers from Europe to Africa to Asia. The Boston Consulting Group says the global AV market will reach $42 billion by 2025.5 Infoholic Research LLP estimates that revenue from AVs could grow 39.6 percent annually through 2027, reaching $126.8 billion by that time worldwide.6 Even more dramatically, the digital transformation of the auto industry will deliver $3.1 trillion in “societal benefits” to the world, according to the World Economic Forum, including the reduced costs of individual ownership, crashes, maintenance, and fuel, as well as lower carbon emissions and insurance premiums.7 Intel says that the global AV market could create a $7 trillion “passenger economy” worldwide by 2050.8 By comparison, the top ten car companies in the world today are worth about $650 billion.

There are two very different visions of a world with automated vehicles. One is the vision, based on the hype around AVs, of a utopia similar to Norman Bel Geddes’s best-case scenario of driverless cars bringing “safety, comfort, speed, and economy” to society. The other view is a dystopian one. In the Disney movie Wall-E, spaceship-bound refugees from an Earth destroyed by environmental catastrophe are so well cared for by their robot transportation devices that hardly anyone has a reason to even stand up, with the result that the universe’s entire remaining population of Homo sapiens is morbidly obese. This future—one in which fewer people die from vehicle crashes but more develop hypertension and diabetes at ever-younger ages—doesn’t seem like much of a trade-off. I also fear that an AV-dominated society will direct transportation toward those with means. The lowest-income individuals will be shackled to low-performing, infrequent, unreliable, and overall odious transit options—if they have any options at all.

There are other potentially harmful outcomes of plunging ahead mindlessly with AVs, and these concerns are shared by some of the leading thinkers in transportation. Bern Grush, a transport futurist you will meet in this book, warns of the law of unintended consequences: “AVs will be like smart phones. After a few years, everyone will want the newer models. The number of cars worldwide will grow from just over one billion today to two billion, then four billion, in twenty-year jumps. This is akin to what we saw at the start of the last century—with just 8,000 cars in the United States in 1900 and 1.7 million by 1914—except a thousand times faster.

“We imagine an AV will cost the same as an average vehicle today, about $29,000,” Grush continues. “In reality, in 2040 an AV may cost just $7,500. A number of reasons will bring the cost down—fewer moving parts, and advancements in manufacturing technology. [We] will be far more likely to print an AV. We could order a car from Amazon or the local 3D printing shop and have a vehicle the next day. I’m telling you it can happen,” he cautions.

Moreover, since cars will be not just cheap but multifunctional—containers in which we can work and sleep and play—having an individual car might seem very appealing. And since AVs will be upgraded frequently, as cell phones are today, rapid improvement could lead to more frequent purchases. Most people own a car for about ten years and generally replace their cell phones after only a few years.9 In the future, however, people may start replacing cars at the same rate as cell phones. If that happens, the roads are likely to be both littered with abandoned vehicles and overcrowded with operational vehicles.

Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Company, warns of “global gridlock” by 2050 “if we continue on the path we’re on.” He adds, “Our infrastructure cannot support such a large volume of vehicles without creating massive congestion that would have serious consequences for our environment, health, economic progress and quality of life.” The path that Grush and Ford warn about is one that continues to focus on the individually owned car—on private transportation carrying one person on a disproportionate number of trips.

AVs have the potential to bring both benefits and disadvantages. On the one hand, tens of thousands of lives will be saved as traveling becomes safer and more predictable. On the other hand, after drivers of trucks, taxis, Ubers, and buses lose their jobs, they will have to learn new skills to adapt to a changed transportation marketplace. Cities could be imperiled if autonomous vehicles destroy public transit systems. It doesn’t help when innovators like Elon Musk put down public transit:

I think public transport is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time. It’s a pain in the ass. That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer.… And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.10

This is a preposterous way to characterize public transit. The societal and environmental benefits of a well-run transit system are enormous. Any negative aspects of mass transit can be minimized, and in some cases avoided, if we act in the right ways. Showing how is the core premise of this book.

We shouldn’t excuse our leaders and planners if they fail to plan for this next transportation revolution about to hit us. It can only hurt us if government sits back and waits to set policy—or worse, allows private business to completely control the narrative and public policy. We need to think now about how AVs will affect life, family, ethics, and the environment. To that end, I discuss many of the business issues, as well as some of the political and social policy issues. For example, unions need to prepare for AVs: if they enter the field early, they would have a lot to gain, but they could lose out entirely if they do not. City centers present distinct challenges for AVs. It’s not so hard to imagine a businessperson going to a meeting in Midtown Manhattan and, instead of paying what will soon be fees in the triple digits for parking, telling his AV to drive around the block continually until he calls for it.

AVs have the potential to transform our existing highways as well. Since these cars can travel in very precise paths, we may not need 12-foot-wide lanes for 6-foot-wide cars. A 36-foot-wide, three-lane roadway could become four 9-foot lanes at the cost of no more than new lane striping. In the immediate future, we will likely see dedicated lanes for AVs only. In center cities, it would be a mistake to squeeze in more car lanes on city streets, but trimming down to skinny lanes could mean adding bus lanes, bikeways, pedestrian spaces, more outdoor cafés, rows of trees, and more. In many suburbs, AVs could link to existing transit lines, or new lines made up of autonomous transit vehicles could be designed.

All of these issues represent just a few of the ashes from the imminent transportation “volcano.” We are at the dawn of a very new and different world that AVs will usher in before we know it. If you’re not convinced yet, think about where young ambitious people in the recent past went when they sought their first jobs and careers. In the 1980s, many went to where they could move money around: Wall Street and its environs. In the 1990s and early 2000s, they went to companies that were moving data: the dot-coms, Silicon Valley, and other high-tech hot spots. Today many of the smartest young people are going to—and being courted by—companies and institutions focused on moving people and goods. That’s where the money is today and into the near future: the AV industry.

ONE OF MY favorite books is Jack Finney’s 1970 novel Time and Again, in which the protagonist, Simon Morley, travels back to 1882 as part of a government project. While living in the Dakota apartment building, sadly made famous as the home and site of the assassination of former Beatle John Lennon, he travels between 1970 Manhattan and 1880s Manhattan. Some forty years before my parents would emigrate to the United States from Poland, the 1880s were a gilded time in the city. Most people had never seen a motorcar, still barely in its infancy, much less ridden in one. It would be seventeen years, in 1899, before the first pedestrian, Henry Bliss, would be killed by one of these newfangled inventions. Coincidentally, the accident occurred just a block north of the Dakota.

I would like to be able to travel back to this time myself, to explain that I have news of the impact that motor vehicles will have in the future—that in the 2018 world nearly 1.3 million people will die in road crashes each year worldwide and an additional 50 million will be injured.11 I’d be able to tell the people of 1880 that even though the century ahead will be one of world wars, motor vehicles will be responsible for killing and maiming more people than all twentieth-century wars combined. I would present the ethical argument that cars will improve the quality of life for many—by reducing travel time, allowing more people to prosper, and bringing city-dwellers to the country in less than an hour. But I would also warn that there is a good way to proceed and a bad way to proceed. That message is the essence of No One at the Wheel. In 2018, we should imagine a visit from a person from the year 2100. Will she look on our choices admiringly, or with her head in her hands at the chaos we are about to create? That is the moment we face.


Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: The Future Is Now

I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals; I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.


IN 2004, A SMALL AUTONOMOUS THREE-WHEEL VEHICLE DROVE itself around an open area in the middle of Florence, Italy, to the delight of onlookers.2 Its designer had taken careful consideration of the ancient city’s many narrow one-way streets and programmed its steering mechanism to go straight or turn right—no left turns allowed. No driver was needed to even sit in the cart to make sure it operated properly. The route was programmed into the vehicle, and the brakes could be operated remotely in case the vehicle had to be stopped quickly.

The vehicle was not the invention of twenty-first-century engineers testing out the latest in robotic cars. It was a demonstration of a third-scale working model of an autonomous cart designed by Leonardo da Vinci sometime around 1478. Historians say that the cart, which could travel just 40 meters (127 feet) before stopping, was probably designed for entertainment purposes. Still, Paolo Galluzzi, director of the Institute and Museum of the History of Science, who oversaw the building of the model, proved that da Vinci’s previously unrealized plans worked as designed, and that his vision was centuries ahead of its time.


Da Vinci’s work also demonstrates just how long people have been dreaming about driverless cars. Indeed, autonomous technology (AT) existed long before the first gasoline-powered Model T was driven off the factory floor. AT got a boost in the early 1860s when English engineer Robert Whitehead invented the self-propelled torpedo, using an early guidance system for maintaining depth. Steamboats and trains were probably the earliest forms of self-guided vehicles, with trains using guided tracks to support not only their length and weight but their directional control as well. The earliest steamboats used various combinations of propulsive force, paddle wheels, and screw propellers.3

Airplanes were equipped with the first autopilot system when Sperry Corporation introduced it in 1912. The system allowed the aircraft to fly straight and level without a pilot’s constant attention, greatly reducing the pilot’s workload. That was just nine years after the Wright brothers took their first flight.

In 1925, the Houdina Radio Control Company demonstrated a radio-controlled car at the busy intersection of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and Broadway. The new Chandler Motor Car was fitted with a transmitting antenna on its tonneau—the open passenger seat—so that a car following it could more easily operate it via a human driver with a transmitter in his hand. The radio signals operated a series of small electric motors in the car that directed its movement through traffic. Although we could think of this as an early driverless car, in reality the driver was simply outside the car, controlling it from another vehicle, much like a hobbyist controlling a remote-control car today.

This was the case with most of the driverless cars, often called “phantom cars,” that were built and demonstrated throughout the 1920s and ’30s. The Chandler followed a “wabbly [sic] course,” wrote the New York Times, nearly struck a fire engine, and finally came to a stop after almost running down the press pack covering the event. Other driverless cars, similarly radio-controlled, were demonstrated throughout the country. In the fall of 1927, a former naval radio operator named R. L. Mack demonstrated such a car in Los Angeles and subsequently around the country. And despite its inauspicious debut, the Houdina Chandler was demonstrated in 1926 in Milwaukee and once more in June 1932 in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

In general, 1932 was a dramatic year for driverless technology. In August, a self-taught radio engineer named J. J. Lynch demonstrated a remote-controlled driverless vehicle in Hanover, Pennsylvania, before an enthusiastic crowd. According to journalist Brett Berk, Lynch had operated his automated car numerous times in front of large crowds, without incident. During this particular exposition, however, the autonomous Chrysler went rogue and headed directly into a crowd of 3,000 onlookers instead on staying on course. It hit at least twelve of them, including a sixteen-year-old boy who sustained a major head injury that may have been a factor in his death several years later in a sanatorium. Ironically, one of Lynch’s purposes was to demonstrate the potential safety of driverless cars. Year later, in advance of another demonstration, Lynch told the now-defunct Yonkers-based Herald-Statesman that his “Magic Car never jumps a yellow light. It always takes the inside lane on a street when making a left turn. It stays way over on the right for a right turn. That’s more than a lot of cars with drivers do.”4 Despite that crash—and others—the promise of the greatly increased safety of driverless cars has been an enduring hallmark of developers’ enthusiasm for the vehicles.

Since that time, every world’s fair and expo has showcased robo-cars of one kind or another, always underscoring their supposed benefits: safety, convenience, and accessibility. In the 1950s, General Motors and RCA built a radio-controlled car that could only run on special highways embedded with steel cables tracked by magnets in the car. In 1977, the Tsukuba Mechanical Engineering Lab in Japan pioneered a driverless car that could travel at a maximum of about 20 miles per hour. Its computerized system tracked white street markers with machine vision. In the 1980s, the German pioneer of driverless cars Ernst Dickmanns figured out a way to retrofit a Mercedes van to drive hundreds of highway miles autonomously.

Autonomous technology is a full-scale reality today. The bread on our tables is likely to have been made from wheat gathered with a driverless harvesting machine like the Dutch Power Company’s Greenbot; drones are a curse and a marvel, for they can kill from the air as well as deliver packages to our doorsteps; and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) are used in a variety of situations, many of them dangerous—for example, when explosives or other hazards must be handled.5

Yet until recently, the dream of a mass-produced driverless car has remained out of reach of the general public. Unlike a military UGV stationed in a far-off desert, a drone, a robotic vacuum cleaner, or even a sailboat with an auto-tiller, cars must navigate the complexities of urban streets and suburban avenues, roadwork on busy highways, and winding routes in rural landscapes, all of which contain people.

To meet these challenges, in 2004 the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) asked dozens of teams already working on autonomous vehicles to compete for a $1 million prize, in the hopes of automating one-third of all military vehicles by 2015. The expectation was that any successful resulting technology could be applied to vehicles for general use. That year’s entries largely failed. The next year the competition produced several driverless cars and trucks that could cruise California’s Mojave Desert without incident. In 2007, DARPA set up its “Urban Challenge” and asked developers to reach a new goal: develop AVs that could safely navigate city streets.6 The 60-mile urban course had to be completed in less than six hours, and every entry had to obey traffic rules and negotiate traffic and other obstacles. The first prize was $2 million.

Advancements in computer technology—such as sophisticated software for road-following and collision avoidance, improved radar and laser sensors, and better mapping—made a significant difference between the outcome of the failed first contest and the results of the more successful Urban Challenge. “Tartan Racing,” a collaborative effort by Carnegie Mellon University and General Motors, took first prize with the “Boss,” a highly modified Chevy Tahoe. The Stanford Racing Team’s “Junior,” a 2006 Volkswagen Passat, took second place. A modified 2005 Ford Escape came in third.

One commercially available driverless shuttle, the “Navia,” was introduced to the United States by the French company Induct in 2014.7 It can travel only about 12.5 miles per hour, and it is powered by an electric motor. Essentially a very large golf cart, it cannot drive with other cars on highways and roads, but it can transport about ten people from point to point in more controlled environments, like a university campus or an airport parking lot. The vehicle knows when its battery is low, drives itself to a charging station, and plugs itself in. “It works like a horizontal elevator. You come in and choose your stop,” says Max Lefevre, Induct’s marketing director.8


  • ""[Schwartz] knows everything about how cars and people don't get along, having been on the front lines. This book - written in an earnest, conversational style - is his attempt to grapple with a fresh threat that's appeared after decades of progress.... If we heed Gridlock Sam and this valuable, humane book as we move toward a future in which we largely surrender the wheel, we can avoid messing up again."—New York Times Book Review
  • "This is an essential treatise on a technology whose development and regulation will have an impact on 'the future health of people, economies, cities, and more."—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
  • "It's safe to say that few people on the planet know more about guiding vehicles from place to place than Schwartz, an engineer who served as New York City's traffic commissioner for years...An invigorating bit of future-trend prognosticating, generally positive, if warning direly of global gridlock if trends continue. Urban planners, architects, and transportation activists will definitely want to take note."—Kirkus
  • "Sam Schwartz does a great job of seeing the systems implications to the introduction of autonomous vehicles. No One at the Wheel helps us imagine a world with augmented driving experiences, and how this technology will change transportation as we know it."—James P. Hackett, President and CEO of Ford Motor Company
  • "Cities need fewer futurists to marvel about transportation technology and more street sages like Sam Schwartz to keep sight of our urban fundamentals. No One at the Wheel tells us how to take cities off of autopilot and shape the driverless future we want to see on our streets."—Janette Sadik-Khan, author of Street Fight and former Commissioner of the New York CityDepartment of Transportation
  • "This is an excellent book. Sam Schwartz is a giant who has spent a career doing all he can to deliver transportation services that improve the quality of lives. A must-read!"—Alain Kornhauser, host of SmartDriving Cars and professor at Princeton University
  • "No One At The Wheel gives a balanced primer on the good, the bad and the ugly potential for autonomous vehicles, but with a dose of critical history and great storytelling. Read this book if you want to shape the future vs. let it happen to you."—Gabe Klein, author of Start-UpCity, co-founder of CityFi, and formerCommissioner of the Chicago and Washington DC Departments of Transportation
  • "No One at the Wheel is a must read for anyone in business, public policy, education or planning to live in the future. Sam is simply brilliant!"
    Jim Simpson, transportationentrepreneur and former Transportation Administrator at the United StatesDepartment of Transportation

On Sale
Nov 20, 2018
Page Count
272 pages

Samuel I. Schwartz

About the Author

Sam Schwartz, a.k.a. “Gridlock Sam,” is one of the leading transportation experts in the United States today. He served as New York City’s traffic commissioner and the New York City Department of Transportation’s chief engineer. Schwartz currently runs Sam Schwartz Engineering and is a columnist at the New York Daily News. He has been profiled by the New Yorker, New York Times, and many other national publications. Schwartz lives in New York City and owns a Volvo that can drive without him.

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